The Surrealist Incursion and its Influence on American Abstract Art of the 1940s
“Abstract Surrealism” is a term coined by André Breton to describe Surrealist painting that was predominantly abstract, but the term could just as easily be turned around. “Surrealist Abstraction” would imply a style of painting that approaches abstraction, while at the same time, retaining elements derived from the precedence of Surrealism. Works of this description developed in the United States during the early to mid-1940s, when a fairly large contingent of artists affiliated with the Surrealist movement fled the war in Europe and settled in New York: among them Enrico Donati, Roberto Matta Echaurren, Yves Tanguy, Kay Sage, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, André Masson, Stanley William Hayter, Gordon Onslow Ford, Fernand Léger, André Breton, Pavel Tchelitchew, Kurt Seligmann, and even their spokesman, André Breton. In New York, their art and ideas were quickly embraced by a group of young and impressionable painters who had come of age during the years of the Depression, but who were then in the process of forging independent abstract styles of their own. Among them were Gerome Kamrowski, Robert Motherwell, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock. They quickly adopted various techniques introduced to them by the Surrealists—particularly psychic automatism (as well as decalcomania and frottage)—that would eventually coalesce into a movement that was uniquely theirs: Abstract Expressionism.
The French painter Yves Tanguy and the American painter Kay Sage can serve to illustrate the merger between European and American artists during the war years. By the time they met in Paris 1938, Tanguy was already a well-known Surrealist painter of abstract landscapes, dreamlike visions that were much admired by Breton. Sage was just beginning her career as a painter, but, independently, developed a style that vaguely resembled that of Tanguy’s. They fell in love and, as a couple, attended exhibitions together and befriended many of their fellow Surrealists in Paris. When the war broke out in 1939, they fled to the United States, where, in 1940, they married. They lived together and painted in adjoining studios for the next fifteen years, until Tanguy’s death in 1955. Their union serves as the ideal metaphor for what occurred on a broader scale when many European Surrealists—transplanted temporarily to New York during the war years—introduced their ideas and techniques to a receptive group of American abstract painters, a fusion of styles that laid the foundation for the development of Abstract Expressionism.
A single picture included in this presentation demonstrates the influence of Surrealism on this new style of painting, a collaborative effort among three American artists: Gerome Kamrowski, William Baziotes, and Jackson Pollock. Around 1940-41, Kamrowski, an artist who had studied under László Moholy-Nagy in Chicago and Hans Hoffman in Provincetown, became fascinated by the effects produced by dripped paint, inspired, perhaps, by the freedom offered through psychic automatism, which Breton had proposed as a means by which to create art directly from unconscious thought. Kamrowski and two of his colleagues—Pollock and Baziotes—attended several sessions devoted to automatism hosted by Matta, and they were in the process of creating a splinter group that would take Surrealism in a new direction. Kamrowski invited his two friends over to his studio to experiment with new techniques. The three worked together on canvases that were spread out on the floor, of which only the present example survives. Within it can be seen forms set against a dark ground (typical of Kamrowski’s shadowbox collages), expressive gestural brushstrokes (characteristic of Baziotes paintings of this period) and finally, pigment allowed to drip directly from the end of a wet brush (closely resembling the later drip paintings of Pollock). “[This painting] has come to be regarded over the years as an embryonic symbol of the soon to emerge Abstract Expressionism,” observed the noted art historian Martica Sawin, “and a forerunner of the free-wheeling dripped paintings Pollock was to do in the later 1940s.” The painting could also be used as a visual metaphor for United States serving in its traditional capacity as a veritable melting pot for émigrés, in this case, a group of displaced European artists who made a significant contribution to American Art in a critical phase of its development.
Óscar Domínguez (1906-1957) Born on the island of Tenerife (part of the Canary Islands belonging to Spain). In 1927 Dominguez was sent to Paris to oversee his father’s export business. There he met André Breton and, in 1933, began painting in a Surrealist style. His earliest mature works show the influence of Yves Tanguy and Salvador Dalí, for like them he painted fantastical scenes in ambiguous landscape settings. In 1935, he began the use of decalcomania, a technique that had earlier been used by decorators to create interesting organic patterns. In his case, he applied gouache to a flat surface, usually glass, and the pressed the glass against another surface (usually a canvas). When pulled away, an abstract pattern is created. He also created a number of provocative, but highly enigmatic Surrealist objects. He spent the war years in Paris, where he befriended Picasso and Paul Eluard. His lover, a Polish pianist named Roma, was captured and killed by the Gestapo. During the war years, his paintings display the unmistakable influence of Picasso, whom had had met shortly after moving to Paris in the 1930s and whose paintings he admired. After the war, he developed an intimate relationship with the Vicomtesse de Noailles, a descendant of the Marquis de Sade, an historical figure about whom the Surrealists had developed a special fascination. Domínguez suffered from a congenital illness that left him deformed. At the age of 51, he committed suicide by slicing his wrists.
Enrico Donati (1909-2008) Italian-American Surrealist painter and sculptor. After studying economics at the University of Pavia in Italy, in the early 1930s Donati moved to Paris where he first came into contact with the Surrealists. He saw works by Native American artists in a museum there and traveled to the American Southwest to become more familiar with their art and customs. When the war broke out he moved to New York, where his work was first recognized by André Breton, who immediately welcomed him into the Surrealist group. It was in New York that he met Marcel Duchamp, whom he helped to organize the International Surrealist exhibition at the Galerie Maeght in Paris in 1947; he also helped with the assembly and coloration of the catalogue cover—which featured a false human breast—designed by Duchamp. His paintings from the 1940s are often composed of overlapping geometric forms, but relying on the technique of frottage, he also created an imagery of organic shapes against an opaque ground, at times resembling views of outer space. In the 1950s his style changed; whereas his paintings remained predominately abstract, the surfaces were often heavily textured, some created by dust, an unmistakable influence of the American abstract painters in his milieu. He continued exhibiting until the time of his death at age 99.
Jimmy Ernst (1920-1984) Born Hans-Ulrich Ernst (later known as “Jimmy”) in Cologne, Ernst was the son of the famous Surrealist painter Max Ernst and Louise Straus, an historian and journalist. They divorced when Jimmy was only two-years old. When Hitler rose to power, his mother fled to Paris and Jimmy lived with his grandparents in Germany. In 1938, he moved to the United States, where, for a brief period, he worked in the mailroom at the Museum of Modern Art. He worked through diplomatic channels to secure the release of his father who had been interned. He succeeded, and his father arrived in the United States in 1941, but his mother, who was Jewish, was captured by the Nazis and died in Auschwitz. In New York, Jimmy befriended many American painters, most notably Ethel and William Baziotes. In 1940, he became a member of The Irascible Eighteen, artists who protested how contemporary art was treated by administrators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; among the members of this group were some of the most notable abstract artists of the day: Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt, William Baziotes, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and others. Jimmy Ernst and many of these same artists attended the lectures delivered by Gordon Onslow Ford at the New School in 1941. Ernst served briefly as director of Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery, and he was given three exhibitions at the Norlst Gallery. From his first exhibition there in 1942, the Museum of Modern Art in New York (his former employer) purchased a painting. His work of the 1940s and 1950s—many of which contains shapes (some defined by grids) that float in an intentionally ambiguous space—are today seen as an aesthetic bridge between Surrealism and American Abstract Expressionism. His autobiography, which discussed these early years in New York, was called A Not-So-Still Life, and appeared just before his death in 1984.
David Hare (1917-1992) An American sculptor and painter, began his career as a photographer. In the 1930s, he experimented with various techniques of color-film photography, distorting negatives to produce a decidedly Surrealist effect. In the early 1930s, he received an assignment from the American Museum of Natural History to take portrait photographs of the Hopi, Navajo and Zuni Indians in the Southwest. In the 1940s, he was introduced to the European Surrealists living in New York by his cousin Kay Sage, and became an integral member of their group. With André Breton, Max Ernst, and Marcel Duchamp, he was cofounder and editor of the magazine VVV. In 1944, he married Jacqueline Lamba, Breton’s first wife and, in 1947, participated in the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme at the Galerie Maeght in Paris. In New York, he helped establish The Subjects of the Artist school, along with painters Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and William Baziotes. From 1954 through 1957, he showed in the New York Painting and Sculpture Annuals, and taught sculpture in the art departments of various colleges, most notably the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and the Maryland Institute of Art in Baltimore. He died at the age of 75 at his longtime home in Jackson, Wyoming, the result of an aortic aneurysm.
Stanley William Hayter (1901-1988) An English painter and printmaker who, through his printmaking workshop in Paris called Atelier 17 (named after its street address on the rue Campagne-Première), came into contact with some of the most notable artists of the 1930s working in Paris: Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, etc. Upon the outbreak of war, he moved the workshop to New York, where it became a meeting place for Surrealists émigrés, as well as many young American artists who sought affiliation with them. It was in these years that he developed a technique called “viscosity color printing,” where ink was added to a metal plate in layers, thereby allowing the print to be produced in various colors during subsequent runs through the press. He became interested in the Surrealist technique of automatism and urged his students to not make preparatory studies but to work directly on the plate or surface of the canvas. These spontaneous qualities are evident in his paintings of this period, many of which appear abstract, although his titles reveal that he never wholly abandoned a subject (which was often drawn from Greek myth). He remained in New York throughout the 1940s, his example influencing many artists of the New York School. He returned to Paris in 1950, and continued his workshop there, producing some 400 prints before his death in 1988 at the age of 86.
Gerome Kamrowski (1914-2004) An American painter born in Warren, Minnesota, who studied at the St. Paul School of Art (now the Minnesota Museum of Art), and then later at the New Bauhaus in Chicago (now the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology). He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1940 that brought him to New York, where he met and befriended many of the Surrealists who were living there during the war. He embraced their ideas of psychic automatism and began important experiments with revolutionary new techniques in painting. He worked closely with William Baziotes, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock and Roberto Matta. His fusion of ideas derived from Surrealism with the most recent tendencies in abstract art allow us to classify his work as “surrealist abstraction.” He was among the few American painters to show at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century and examples of his work were included in the International Exhibition of Surrealism at the Galerie Maeght in Paris in 1947. In 1948, after the death of his wife, Kamrowski moved with his son to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he accepted a teaching position at the university. He remained there until his retirement in 1982, largely forgotten in the annals of art history. Recent exhibitions of his work and their accompanying catalogues have acknowledged the important contribution he made to abstract painting in America in the 1940s.
Man Ray (1890-1976) Best known as photographer, Man Ray began his career as a painter. He had some artistic training at the Ferrer Center or Modern School, an anarchist center in New York. From between 1915 and 1919, he was given three one-person shows at the gallery of Charles Daniel in New York, showing paintings that were dependent upon a remarkably earlier and sophisticated formalist theory of his own invention. In 1915, he met the French artist Marcel Duchamp, who was living out the war years in New York. They became fast friends and, when Duchamp returned to Paris in 1921, Man Ray followed, remaining there for the next twenty years. He was first embraced by the Dada artists and, like many of his colleagues, was accepted as a Surrealist when the movement was established in 1923. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Man Ray worked professionally as a photographer, while at the same time pursuing his career as a painter. When the Occupation occurred in Paris, he left for the United States, spending the next decade in Hollywood, California, where, having abandoned photography as a profession, he pursued his career as a painter. There he also began the production of chess sets and object-sculptures, which he called “Objects of Affection.” He was given a show of these objects in 1945 at the gallery of Julien Levy in New York, then considered the main commercial venue for Surrealism in the United States. He returned to Paris in 1950, where he continued to work on his paintings and the creation of objects, of which he issued limited editions in the 1960s and early 1970s. He died in Paris in 1976 at the age of 86.
André Masson (1896-1987) French Surrealist painter whose earliest works are stylistically dependent on Cubism. By the mid-1920s, he began experimenting with techniques that derived from Surrealist automatism, creating many automatic drawings, pen-and-ink sketches that seem to have sprung from spontaneous, unconscious thought. In the 1920s, he threw sand and glue against a canvas surface, making paintings from the forms that were created by chance. During the German Occupation, his work was declared degenerate by the Nazis and he eventually left for New York. When he emigrated to the United States in 1942, a US Customs official confiscated his drawings at the border because they were considered too erotic. Masson’s brother-in-law was the French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan, who owned Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World, a famed erotic painting that everyone knew about, but which few people actually saw. For most of his time in the United States Masson lived with his family in New Preston, Connecticut. Despite the remote location, his work was shown regularly in New York, where his densely symbolic and abstract paintings influenced many American artists who saw them, most notably Jackson Pollock. During the time of his American sojourn, he showed at the galleries of Kurt Valentine, Pierre Matisse and Paul Rosenberg, culminating in a one-person show at the Bucholz Gallery in 1945 that featured forty-two paintings and drawings. After the war, he returned to France, where he lived and worked for the remaining years of his life. He was given a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1976.
Gordon Onslow Ford (1912-2003) Born in England into a family of artists, Onslow Ford began his career in painting at a very early age. His studies were interrupted by a stint in the Royal Naval Academy, where he developed a love for the sea. Navigation and mapping would figure prominently in his first mature works, which date from the late 1930s when he moved to Paris to study with the French cubist painters André Lhote and Fernand Léger. In Paris he met the Chilean painter Roberto Matta, and they would develop a deep and lifelong friendship. Just before the outbreak of war, Onslow Ford rented an abandoned chateau in Chemilieu, near the Swiss border, where he was joined by Matta, André Breton, Jacqueline Lamba, Esteban Frances, Yves Tanguy and Kay Sage. There they shared ideas about painting, talking about how they could create imaginary landscapes that were not derived from the physical world, but from the inner depths of the human psyche, conversations that would in varying ways affect all of their future work. Upon the outbreak of war, Onslow Ford moved to New York, where, shortly after his arrival, he was invited to deliver a series of lectures on the new art in Europe at the New School for Social Research. Those lectures were attended by artists who would become important figures in Abstract Expressionism: Robert Motherwell, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, William Baziotes, and others. In 1941, Onslow Ford married Jacqueline Johnson, an American writer who had attended his lectures, and later that year they moved to Mexico, where they would spend the next seven years. There they were visited by regularly by artists from Europe and America: Wolfgang Paalen, Remedios Varo, Esteban Frances, Benjamin Péret, and others. In 1948, Onslow Ford moved to San Francisco, where, with the artist Wolfgang Paalen and Lee Mullican, he became part of the Dynation group. In the 1950s, he and his wife moved to Inverness, California, a deeply wooded estate along the coast north of the city where he built a home and studio and devoted himself to painting and writing for the remaining years of his life.
Wolfgang Paalen (1905-1959) Viennese-born painter and theorist, Paalen grew up in privilege (his father invented the vacuum cleaner). He began the study of art while his family lived in Italy, but they moved to Berlin in the early 1920s where Paalen became immersed in the philosophy of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and, in the same period, became an ardent adherent of Gestalt theory. He moved to Paris in the 1930s where he studied for a brief period with Fernand Léger and joined the Abstract-Creation group, which he left after only two years. He met André Breton in 1935, who immediately invited him to take part in several Surrealist exhibitions. He participated in the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936 where he was represented by twelve works, including his first fumage, a painting where the surface had been burned by a candle, leaving a chance-formed soot residue. In 1938, Paalen and his wife Alice Rahon met Frida Kahlo who was visiting Paris. She invited them to Mexico, where they went in 1939 just before the outbreak of war. In April of 1940 he traveled to New York where Julien Levy showed his fumage paintings to great success. Returning to Mexico, he published the magazine DYN, which served as a forum for his theories of perception and abstraction, ideas that had a great influence on the Abstract Expressionists in New York. In 1949 he moved to San Francisco, where with the artists Gordon Onslow Ford and Lee Mullican, he started the Dynation group (carrying out many of the ideas and aesthetic principles outlined in DYN). In 1954 he went back to Mexico, where he continued to paint and write, but suffering from depression, he committed suicide in 1959.
Kurt Seligmann (1900-1962) Born in Basel, Switzerland, Seligmann first studied art in Geneva, but moved to Paris in the early 1930s. Through the invitation of his friends Alberto Giacometti and Hans Arp, he joined Abstract-Creation. In the mid-1930s, his paintings took on a more baroque appearance, figures became more animated and were festooned with ribbons, drapery and heraldic imagery, whereupon his work was drawn to the attention of André Breton, who accepted him as a member of the Surrealist group. Upon the outbreak of war, Seligmann and his wife Arlette Paraf (a granddaughter of the art dealer Daniel Wildenstein), moved to the United States, where they would remain for the rest of their lives. His work in the 1940s reached the zenith of its development, incorporating elements of mythology and the occult. He developed an expertise on magic and wrote a seminal book on the subject called The Mirror of Magic (published by Pantheon Books in 1948). Seligmann was represented in nearly all of the major Surrealist exhibitions of his day, including The First Papers of Surrealism in New York in 1942, and he was a frequent contributor to the two most important Surrealist magazines published in New York: VVV, edited by David Hare in collaboration with André Breton, Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst, and View, edited by Charles Henri-Ford and Parker Tyler. In the late 1950s, Seligman had a heart attack, after which he and his wife settled on a farm they had purchased in Sugar Loaf, New York, where he died from a self-inflicted but accidental gunshot wound in 1957.
Kay Sage (1898-1963) Born in Watervliet, New York (a suburb of Albany), Sage was brought up in a wealthy family (her father was in the timber industry). She traveled widely in her youth, spending months of the year with her mother and sister in London, Paris, Lucerne and Rapallo, Italy. She undertook her first serious study of art in 1919 in Washington, D.C., but a year later was in Italy where she painted somewhat conventional portraits, landscapes and room interiors. In Rapallo, she met the expatriate American poet Ezra Pound, who introduced her to the German sculptor Heinz Henghes, an artist whose work was to have a profound impact on her earliest mature paintings. In the spring of 1936, she met Kurt Seligmann and his wife Arlette by chance in a Parisian hotel and saw his work. In the summer of that year, she also chanced upon seeing a painting by Yves Tanguy in an exhibition at the Galerie Charpentier. It was called, presciently, I am Waiting for You. Sage finally met Tanguy in 1938, and they likely recognized that they shared a coincidental, but similar artistic style. Upon the outbreak of war, she and Tanguy left for New York. They married in a civil ceremony in Reno, Nevada in 1940. In America, her work featured desolate landscapes with drapery suggesting human forms, while in the latter 1940s and 1950s, the paintings increasingly incorporated ambiguous, architectonic structures. She and Tanguy moved to a farmhouse in Woodbury, Connecticut, but made frequent trips to New York to see friends and attend various art exhibitions. Tanguy died in 1955, and Sage, who became increasingly reclusive and despondent after his death, committed suicide at their home in 1963.
Yves Tanguy (1900-1955) Tanguy began his career as an artist in 1922 upon the chance viewing of a painting in a shop window by the Italian artist Georgio de Chirico, whose Metaphysical Paintings profoundly influenced many of the Surrealists. Although he had no formal artistic training, he began painting in earnest, his earliest paintings exhibiting the influence of Hieronymus Bosch (considered a precursor to Surrealism). In 1925 he met André Breton, who became so impressed with his work that he commissioned the artist to paint twelve paintings for him a year. His paintings featured desolate landscapes inhabited by amorphic abstract figures (occasionally accompanied by what appears to be a monumental follicle of human hair). In 1927, these paintings were shown at the Galerie Surréaliste, an exhibition that was exceptionally well received by his fellow Surrealist painters. In 1930, Tanguy’s landscapes become more solidly defined by wavelike structures, still inhabited by amorphic forms that now cast distinct shadows, forms that come to life in a number of sculptures produced in this same period. In 1936, Tanguy is given an exhibition at the gallery of Julien Levy in New York, and his work is included in Alfred Barr, Jr.’s Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism, a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (which acquires two of his pictures in this same year). In 1938, he meets the American painter Kay Sage, and they fall in love. At the outbreak of war, Sage leaves for the United States followed a few months later by Tanguy. They marry in 1940 and, after a visit to the home of Alexander Calder in Roxbury, Connecticut, they decide to live in the area and eventually purchase a farmhouse in nearby Woodbury, where they would paint for the remaining years of their life. In this period Tanguy’s paintings become larger, more colorful and increasingly complex. Although Tanguy and his Sage’s paintings display a marked conjunction of style, they worked independently, a separation that was made clear when they desired their work to be shown in separate galleries for their first joint exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1954. Tanguy died a year later due to a stroke that resulted from a fall.